How you might soon be able to 'play' with the cats in cat videos

Researchers at MIT say they've found a way for viewers to 'touch' objects that appear on a screen. 

Ina Fassbender/Reuters
A visitor tries Sony's "Project Morpheus" virtual reality headset at an exhibition stand during the Gamescom 2014 fair in Cologne, Germany on August 13, 2014.

Researchers at MIT may have found a way to make cat videos even better. 

A new imaging technique known as Interactive Dynamic Video (IDV) uses cameras and algorithms to let users "touch" video content. IDV creates video simulations by studying the "tiny, almost invisible" vibrations of an object, making it possible for viewers to virtually interact with that object. 

"This technique lets us capture the physical behavior of objects, which gives us a way to play with them in virtual space," researcher Abe Davis, a PhD student with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, said in a news release. "By making videos interactive, we can predict how objects will respond to unknown forces and explore new ways to engage with videos." 

The system is simpler than previous techniques for simulating interaction, added Doug James, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, who was not involved in the research.

"Computer graphics allows us to use 3D models to build interactive simulations, but the techniques can be complicated," Dr. James said in the release. "Davis and his colleagues have provided a simple and clever way to extract a useful dynamics model from very tiny vibrations in video, and shown how to use it to animate an image."

Currently, IDV requires users to point and click with a computer mouse to interact with the objects in videos. However, if the technology were to be coupled with virtual reality tools or motion tracking systems, it could allow viewers to literally reach out and touch them.

IDV has a wide range of potential uses beyond letting us "pet" a cute cat from thousands of miles away, researchers say. 

The technique could make the job of filmmakers exponentially easier when it comes to aligning CGI characters with real life settings. It could also enhance augmented reality games, such as Pokémon Go, by allowing the Pokémon to interact with their surroundings.

In addition, IDV could prove to be a useful safety tool for engineers, as it would let them test how a building or other structure might respond to extreme weather conditions or natural disasters. 

"The ability to put real-world objects into virtual models is valuable for not just the obvious entertainment applications, but also for being able to test the stress in a safe virtual environment, in a way that doesn’t harm the real-world counterpart," Mr. Davis said. 

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